August 24, 2007

Machiavelli is the first political thinker to effectively separate politics from religion

Greg Nyquist
The adjective Machiavellian is widely used as a synonym for amoral cunning and ruthless power hunger. Woodrow Wilson, speaking of Machiavelli’s most notorious work, The Prince, wrote: “It recognizes no morality but a sham morality meant for deceit, no honor even among thieves and of a thievish sort, no force but physical force, no intellectual power but cunning, no disgrace but failure, no crime but stupidity.” The neo-conservative intellectual Irving Kristol regarded Machiavelli as the first political thinker to effectively separate politics from religion, thus serving as an inspiration for the “godless” totalitarian despotisms of the twentieth century. George F. Will has gone so far as to accuse of Machiavelli of defining man “as a lump of matter whose most politically relevant attribute is a form of energy call ‘self-interestedness.’ ...
Machiavelli’s reputation as a “secular” thinker comes primarily from one characteristic of his writings: his refusal to judge political reality by the standard of theological idealizations. The political writers of the Middle Ages used an overly idealistic religious framework to interpret everything. Machiavelli who, as a congenital realist, could not help noticing how far these religious idealisms departed from the course of politics as it existed in the brutal world of fact, decided to take a different approach, seeking instead to explain political events realistically, as he found it recorded in history and revealed in the experience of practicing statesmen.
This does not mean that Machiavelli discounted religion altogether. He merely separated himself from the self-righteous hypocrisy of those who tried to explain everything in terms of God’s will, as if all the errors, crime, and disasters of men were somehow God’s fault...Machiavelli lived in an era of horrendous corruption in the Church. The papacy had fallen into the hands of common adventurers, who brought ignominy upon the Christian religion and paved the way for the Protestant Reformation. Machiavelli’s alleged “secularism” is nothing more than Italian anticlericalism: he despised the corrupt, proud, and hypocritical clergy that brought ruin upon Renaissance Italy...
Critical to Machiavelli’s thought is the central role he assigns religion to society. Far from advocating a secular state, Machiavelli makes it clear in The Discourses that he strongly believes in the importance of religion. “Therefore the princes of a republic or kingdom must maintain the foundations of the religion they have; and having done this, it will be an easy thing for them to keep their republic religious, and, in consequence, good and unified.” And elsewhere: “Those Princes and Commonwealths who would keep their Governments entire and incorrupt, are above all things to have a care of Religion and its Ceremonies, and preserve them in due veneration.”
Machiavelli’s central concern was always the welfare of his country. “I believe that the greatest good that one can do, and the most gratifying to God, is that which one does for one’s country.” Machiavelli, above all, was a patriot. He wished to save Italy from the horrors of foreign tyranny. This was his life’s work. In the end, he failed. Italy became subject to the Hapsburg dynasty, rulers of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. The Habsburgs effectively put an end to the Italian Renaissance, instituting a long and ignominious foreign occupation upon Europe’s most civilized population, even going so far as to institute the Spanish Inquisition in the land of Leonardo da Vinci and Galileo...

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